Learning from being there?

concordia talk
[natty flyer designed by Abe, who organised the talk].

Last night (December 4, 2007) I gave an informal slideshow talk about re-enactment and performance art at Concordia University in Montreal. Abe de Bruyn, an Aussie performance practitioner who I had met in Melbourne a few years back, is studying here now, and has initiated a series of guest lectures broadly on the topic of video and performance art.

I collected together a bunch of pictures I took on my recent trip to New York, to discuss re-enacting performance art as a strategy which is relevant to art history, archiving and documentation, as well something which is of social and phenomenological interest.

When you re-enact performance art, you draw things to the surface which you could never have found out about by digging around notes, diagrams, photographs, videos and textual criticism. You could “get closer” to the work, but in doing so, you might become a part of it, “polluting it” with your own 2007-ness, and thus evaporating any hopes you had to witness/experience “the original thing”.

So I showed some images from Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in 6 Parts (1959/2007), and also his Push and Pull: A Furniture Comedy for Hans Hoffman (1963/2007). Keg and Lizzie were with me in New York, so it was great they could come along to this talk to contribute their own responses to these two works.

I also showed images of some of the “synthetic performances” by Eva and Franco Mattes which I saw recently at Artists Space in NYC (they’ve been re-enacting performance art events, bizarrely, within Second Life). And finally I showed some images of the re-creation of Anthony McCall’s Long Film For Ambient Light (1975) which Lousie Curham and I tackled earlier this year in Sydney.

En route to putting together this presentation I stumbled across a few “eyewitness reports” on Marina Abramovic’s Seven Easy Pieces set of re-enactments which she carried out at the Guggenheim in NYC in 2005. I particularly liked this one about Abramovic doing Acconci’s Seedbed, written by Mendi Lewis Obadike.

Seedbed, of course, is the “seminal” work from 1972 in which Acconci lies under a specially constructed wedge-ramp in a gallery and masturbates, fantasising about the visitors who walk on the ramp. His amplified voice is played back into the space.

Of Abramovic’s work in general, Obadike writes:

Often […] the mystery has been about what I would think were I to experience the work first hand.

However, Obidake is left wondering about ‘what really happened’ in Abramovic’s version of Seedbed – it’s worth reading her account of the way visitors were stomping on the ramp, under which Abramovic was masturbating, and about her interactions with the (justifiably?) cynical museum guards.

Even more interesting, Obadike points to a project called Learning from Seedbed by Brandon Labelle. In This piece, Labelle reconsiders the role of the wooden ramp in the work – it is more than just a dumb piece of furniture. Rather, the ramp enables particular social and power relations to take place, and should thus be given further attention:

Architecturally, the ramp creates a hidden space, embedded within the gallery as an anomaly, and yet acting as an ‘amplifier’ for the desires of an individual body seeking its social partner. In this regard, the ramp suggests an ‘architectural performance’ in which the negative space under the ramp allows something to occur within the gallery space.

So Labelle turns the ramp around in the space and lets people crawl underneath it and try out what it’s like to be on both sides, to play those roles, to reconsider Acconci’s work from different angles. This, I think, is a really rich way to approach “re-enactment” – far from slavish homage-reconstructions (which in effect still maintain the old-skool performer-audience relation) Labelle allows visitor-participants to be “in” on the whole thing from the start.

This approach, I think, is closer to what Curham and I were attempting with our unofficial re-creation of McCall’s Long Film for Ambient Light. We approached it as artists, and wanted to have the freedom to frame and organise the work without the restricting “correctness” of an authorised version (although we do have an ongoing and respectful correspondence with the artist).

The point is, that what you end up with is not “the original work” (which is impossible, since “the work” was embedded in its time, place and culture and is thus always going to be different), but instead a “re-mix” (to use Obadike’s term) which we can use, and learn from, right now.

And the “art object”? It turns into an odd hybrid thing – part educational tool, part new artwork, part homage to original work, and partly the original work itself. And what hat do we wear in this business? Curators? DJ’s? Educators? Historians? Luckily the moniker “artist” still has enough flexibility to absorb all these multiple roles.

3 thoughts on “Learning from being there?

  1. the weed one

    You like the Dj similarity lucas, hey?
    Interesting the fact that nowhere you mention the Post-modern word.
    Noticeably the painters, sculptors film-makers and writers all had a go at re-appropriating past artistic trends to then re-work and create a ‘new-reality’, as real as the original one was, as post-modernism goes.
    yet performance art somewhat escaped this reassessing (to my knowledge) till now, ’till you, Abramovic, the Mattes guys (which we love from eons) n others it seems.
    On a recent mail-out by the medium rare gallery (see http://mediumrare.net.au/) Pete write about this young artist:
    “Jesse Willesee is a 22 year old artist and photographer currently exploring, through his combination of art, poetry and spoken word, the infantilization of post modernism as viewed through the eyes of a generation that has appropriated it’s fashions, ideas, ideals and posturing from every significant music and pop cultural movement prior to it’s own, leaving it stripped backed to basics.”
    Apart from the blah blah, i was taken by the concept of a generation which grew amongst Post-modern culture, as oppose to an older one which saw it coming.
    Dont know where i’m trying to go with this, i guess i’m just trying to get my head around it, you provided forum.
    x NoBody

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